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NATO to toast 70th anniversary as alliance seeks to assert relevance

NATO country flags wave at the entrance of NATO headquarters in Brussels as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter attends a NATO ministerial Feb. 11, 2016. (Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)(Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

NATO leaders are gathering in London for a two-day summit to mark the founding of the 29-member military alliance 70 years ago.

Preparations for the two-day meeting have been overshadowed by a raucous debate over defense spending, policies concerning Syria, and a bitter dispute between France and Turkey.

Despite the current strains, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenber insisted that NATO was “the most successful alliance in history,” telling CNN ahead of the gathering that the allies “have been able to change again and again when the world is changing.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has pressed hard for other member states to meet the alliance’s spending rules, defended the role of the alliance, saying hours after landing in London that NATO “serves a great purpose.”

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Trump accused French President Emmanuel Macron of being “nasty” for saying NATO was “brain-dead.”

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was set up by the United States, Canada, and 10 European countries in 1949 on the principle of collective defense, amid concerns over Soviet expansion.

Macron a month ago complained about a lack of political and strategic coordination within the alliance — an assessment that drew sharp criticism from allies.

He said that he saw a waning commitment to the transatlantic alliance by the main guarantor of stability in Europe — the United States — citing Washington’s failure to consult the allies before pulling forces out of northern Syria in October.

The U.S. pullout cleared the way for NATO-member Turkey to push into areas controlled by Kurdish militias considered terrorists by Ankara, deepening fractures between Turkey and other members of the alliance.

At a joint press appearance with Stoltenberg in London, Trump said Macron’s description of NATO as “brain-dead” was “very insulting” and called it a “very, very nasty statement essentially to 28 countries.”

The U.S. president said he could see France “breaking off” from NATO, but he did not explain why.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on November 29 lashed out at Macron, saying the French leader should have his “own brain-death checked” and accusing him of “a sick and shallow understanding” of terrorism.

And on December 3, Erdogan said Ankara would oppose the alliance’s plan for the defense of Baltic countries if the alliance did not recognize groups that Turkey is fighting as terrorists.

Asked if the matter could be resolved by the end of the London summit, Stoltenberg on December 3 said, “I will not promise that, but what I can say is that we are working on that.”

In an interview published earlier the same day, Stoltenberg said NATO would respond to any attack on Poland or the Baltic countries.

“Through the presence of NATO forces in Poland and in the Baltic countries, we are sending Russia a very strong signal: if there is an attack on Poland or the Baltic countries, the whole alliance will respond,” he told a group of newspapers.

Turkey has also been criticized for buying a sophisticated Russian air-defense system — a move that prompted the United States to threaten sanctions and to remove Ankara off its F-35 fighter jet program.

Stoltenberg announced last week that nine NATO allies were now meeting the spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product, “up from just three allies a few years ago.”

By 2020, European allies and Canada will have invested $130 billion more since 2016 — the year Trump was elected, Stoltenberg said on November 29.

In a tweet on December 2, Trump took credit for the allies’ commitment to increase spending levels.

“In the 3 decades before my election, NATO spending declined by two-thirds, and only 3 other NATO members were meeting their financial obligations. Since I took office, the number of NATO allies fulfilling their obligations more than DOUBLED, and NATO spending increased by $130B!” he wrote.